Virgin Martyrs: Hagiography and the Popular Romance Compared

It's not that unusual to see criticism of modern romance heroines for being martyrs (e.g. one reviewer mentions that a pet peeve is "martyr heroines to gambling/drunken fathers or brothers"), but Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's analysis of medieval hagiography (biographies of saints), which draws comparison with romance novels, is using the term literally, which I found interesting. Before I give some quotes from Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1150-1300: Virginity and its Authorizations (2001), it's probably helpful to clarify that "The recorded life of a confessor saint is called by the Latin word uita ('life'), that of a martyr a passio ('passion', in the sense of suffering)" (Marsden 206).

The courtly and nuptial virgin is the heroine of ‘rumanz’ in both its major Anglo-Norman meanings: she is the predominant vernacular female saint and her passion is an extended and stylized display of romance constancy to the highest-ranking bridegroom of all. Her passio can be related both to chivalric courtly romance and to the romance modes of modern popular culture. (Wogan-Browne 96)

For information about the modern romance novel Wogan-Browne draws on "the classic analyses of Mills and Boon (Harlequin) romance by Janice Radway" (97). I feel compelled to point out that I have checked Radway and the books she analysed were not in fact Harlequin/Mills & Boons as Wogan-Browne states but mostly longer single-title romances. I've listed them at the end for anyone who's interested. It's perhaps worth noting that Radway's book was published in 1984 and so the novels she studied dated from between 1972-1981. This means that while the comparison between these books and the medieval passio is interesting, one should perhaps be careful before extrapolating to "the modern form of nuptial romance" (Wogan-Browne 96). Admittedly, it doesn't seem wrong, from the perspective of a medievalist, to consider both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries "modern" but scholars of the modern popular romance novel would generally argue that quite a lot has changed in romance writing since the 1970s and 1980s. For one thing, virgin heroines are a lot less common than they were. Anyway, according to Wogan-Browne

The principal difference between the passio and the modern form of nuptial romance (see Figure 3) lies in the distribution of the suitor role. In the modern romance the hero (‘sign of the patriarchy, enemy and lover’, as Jan Cohn calls the romance and novel hero) is a single figure, offering emotionally warm and emotionally cruel behaviour to the heroine in turn. (His cruelty is later ‘revealed’ as not really intended to damage her and as a sign of his vulnerability/love/need.) The medieval passio uses Christ and the pagan for these opposed aspects of the hero role. Christ sums up all aspects of the romance hero role in himself. [...] But although presented as a gentle spouse and supremely courtly lover, Christ can also resort to emotional blackmail and threats of violence at which a pagan might blush and which suggest an area of identity between the male rivals in the suitor role. Christ can boast bigger and longer-lived fires and more torturers in hell than any pagan empire can command, as well as a bigger, better, and higher-ranking court in heaven and an unchallengeable role as the most powerful and desirable bridegroom in the universe. (That Christ is also so often represented as a maternal healer and nourisher, comforting and feeding heroines in their dungeons, completes the romance parallel: modern romance heroes are also both superheterosexual heroes and, at the peripeteia of the narrative, the providers of maternal nurture and care.) (96-97)

Wogan-Browne's figure 3 is in two parts, with one taken from Radway's work (it appears in the 1991 edition on both pages 134 and 150, with a very slight variation between the two) and the other, parallel in structure, created by Wogan-Browne to describe the comparable situations in a medieval passio. For ease of comparison, I've copied out the 13 lines of what Radway (R) calls "the narrative logic of the romance" (150) and placed the equivalent line from Wogan-Browne's figure (98) alongside it, preceded by the initials WB.

  1. R-The heroine's social identity is thrown into question. WB-The heroine is young, beautiful, rich and noble [i.e. nuptial], and brought up in a pagan household. Her social [pagan] identity is thrown into question by her own and the audience's knowledge of her true [Christian] identity.
  2. R-The heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic male. WB-When approached by an aristocratic [pagan] male suitor/tyrant, she refuses him (she has already accepted an aristocratic [Christian] male suitor/lord).
  3. R-The aristocratic male responds ambiguously to the heroine. WB-The pagan insists that he loves/honours/desires her and that she must give in to him.
  4. R-The heroine interprets the hero's behavior as evidence of a purely sexual interest in her. WB-The heroine interprets his insistence as evidence of idolatrous [sexual] interest in her [as opposed to the Christian [romance] interest in her of her Christ bridegroom].
  5. R-The heroine responds to the hero's behavior with anger or coldness. WB-She responds with anger and coldness.
  6. R-The hero retaliates by punishing the heroine. WB-The [pagan] bridegroom-hero responds by punishing the heroine, often by having her stripped, whipped, and thrown into a dungeon in order to bring her to compliance.
  7. R-The hero and heroine are physically and/or emotionally separated. WB-The heroine and [pagan] bridegroom-hero are now physically separated.
  8. R-The hero treats the heroine tenderly. WB-The [Christ] bridegroom-hero gives the heroine care and nurture in the dungeon [angels or Christ himself appear to feed her/tend her wounds].
  9. R-The heroine responds warmly to the hero's act of tenderness. WB-The heroine responds warmly to the [Christ] bridegroom-hero.
  10. R-The heroine reinterprets the hero's ambiguous behavior as the product of previous hurt. WB-The heroine interprets the duality of the bridegroom [pagan/Christian; cruel/kind; idolatrously sexual/romantically desirous] as a function of the fallen world's sinfulness, for which the [Christ] bridegroom has previously suffered enormous hurt [on the cross].
  11. R-The hero proposes/openly declares his love for/demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the heroine with a supreme act of tenderness. WB-The [Christ] bridegroom now openly invites the heroine into his heavenly bower, while the [pagan] bridegroom demonstrates his unwavering commitment to [lacerating, dismembering, and consuming] the heroine, and openly threatens her with beheading.
  12. R-The heroine responds sexually and emotionally to the hero. WB-The heroine says yes to the bower/beheading of the [Christ]/[pagan] bridegroom.
  13. R-The heroine's identity is restored. WB-The heroine's eternal identity is confirmed as she becomes what she was always going to be, a bride of Christ and a saint in heaven.


This comparison works because the novels Radway analysed were written in a period in which, as romance authors Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz wrote in 1992, the romance novel did tend to rely on "romance plot devices [...] rendered complex by their paradoxical nature: [...] heroes who also function as villains; victories that are acts of surrender; seductions in which one is both seducer and seduced; acts of vengeance that conflict with acts of love" (Barlow and Krentz 18). I'm not sure the comparison would work so well if applied to most twenty-first-century romances (or, indeed, to romances from previous decades which did not fit Radway's scheme).

I thought I'd better check which novels Radway consulted in order to compile her "narrative structure of the ideal romance" (Radway 134). The novels Radway selected were a very small group of novels which reflect the preferences of a small sub-set of romance readers.The novels are:

  • Woodiwiss, Kathleen: The Flame and the Flower (Avon 1972); Shanna (Avon 1977); The Wolf and the Dove (Avon 1974); Ashes in the Wind (Avon 1979)
  • De Blassis, Celeste: The Proud Breed (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan 1978)
  • McBain, Laurie: Moonstruck Madness (Avon 1977)
  • Marten, Jacqueline: Visions of the Damned (Playboy Paperbacks 1979)
  • Lindsey, Johanna: Fires of Winter (Avon 1980)
  • Dailey, Janet: Ride the Thunder (Pocket 1980); Nightway (Pocket 1980)
  • Peters, Elizabeth: Summer of the Dragon (Dodd, Mead & Company 1979)
  • Deveraux, Jude: The Black Lyon (Avon 1980)
  • Spencer, LaVyrle, The Fulfillment (Avon 1979)
  • Lee, Elsie: The Diplomatic Lover (Brandywyne Books 1971)
  • Ellis, Leigh: Green Lady (Avon 1981)
  • Kent, Katherine: Dreamtide (Gallen 1981)
  • Afton Bonds, Parris: Made for Each Other (Silhouette 1981)
  • Vreeland Carter, Noël: Miss Hungerford's Handsome Hero (Dell 1981)
  • Barr, Elisabeth: The Sea Treasure (Doubleday 1978)
  • Stevenson, Florence: Moonlight Variations (Jove 1981)


Barlow, Linda and Jayne Ann Krentz. "Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance". Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. 15-29.

Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, 1150-1300: Virginity and its Authorizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

laura Sunday, 9 February, 2020
Jonathan A. Allan's Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance

Cover of Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. It shows a shirtless man, staring at the viewer.As Jonathan Allan states, the motivation underlying this book is, "at bottom, a hope to push scholars of men and masculinities to consider the romance novel as a potential area of inquiry" (9). At under 150 pages, it is a relatively short introduction to the popular romance genre, aimed primarily at these scholars, and Allan repeatedly acknowledges its introductory/limited nature and expresses a wish that it will be seen as "a beginning to a much larger discussion" (90).

I've already posted a bit about Allan's comments in his introduction advocating viewing romance as pornography, so I'll just start with Chapter 1. Since I'm not a scholar of men and masculinities, I'm not in the target audience for the book, I'm a lot more likely to zoom in on things I find relevant to scholarship on popular romance novels.

Chapter 1, "Studying the Popular Romance Novel"

In terms of romance scholarship, Allan seems to be setting himself in opposition to Pamela Regis (albeit not the elements of her work which draw on Northrop Frye), and aligning himself with Janice Radway, Tania Modleski, Ann Barr Snitow (comparison to all three of whom he "might take [...] as a compliment" (18)), Jan Cohn, Jayashree Kamblé and Catherine Roach. Allan sets out "to think about method" (16) and begins by critiquing Pamela Regis's "What Do Critics Owe the Romance?" (2011). Allan's key critique is of Regis's critique of earlier scholars' citations (or lack of them) of primary sources. He admits that he is "perhaps sensitive to this argument because I have also been a recipient of this criticism" (18) (in a post by Jackie Horne). He then offers

some thoughts on how to study the popular romance novel. This chapter should not be read as definitive but rather as exploratory and as a critique of the now common critique that one has not read enough, not read widely enough, or, for instance, that one only studies 'contemporary' romances (as Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance does). Indeed, I am arguing against the idea that 'size matters,' wherein the critic wields the size of their corpus like a phallic object. (19)

Drawing on Northrop Frye, Allan argues that what is important is to focus on archetypes:

In Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, what connects one text to another is the part(s) of the text that are repeated, or what he calls 'archetypes.' [...] The scholar who pays attention to archetypes [...] focuses on the parts of the text that are repeated and repeating. This does not negate the new and innovative ways an archetype might be used, but it does insist upon the repetition of those archetypes, which are, then, essential to the genre. (21)

Allan acknowledges that other methods could be employed to study romance (he mentions Eric Selinger's close reading technique). He also recognises that there are limitations to his approach:

I am assuming that the hero's masculinity does something for readers. What that 'something' is, however, is the work of another project led by another scholar. I am making claims about the genre and about the novels that I study, not about the readers [...] Future work, however, should attend to the matter of readers and authors. (24)

Chapter 2 - Desiring Hegemonic Masculinity

In romance one can find "the very type of masculinity that theorists of masculinity have questioned, critiqued, and worked to reform over the past three decades - namely, hegemonic masculinity" (27). As such, the question "is the romance novel feminist or anti-feminist? [which] in many ways has motivated so much criticism of the popular romance novel [...] is a seductive question to ponder" even while Allan "resist[s] the simplicity of the binary form" (27). Instead, Allan asks "Why is traditional or stereotypical masculinity desirable in romance?" (28) and urges scholars of masculinity to look at romance because "Romance novels, it seems to me, offer an ideal place through which to think about 'hegemonic masculinity' and particularly the question of desire" (28). He also wonders if "scholars of men and masculinities have failed to study the popular romance [...] because it would require us to engage with feminine culture" (32) but also observes that

Popular romance novels embrace the very thing that critical scholars are trying to undo - namely, hegemonic masculinity. What might it mean for critical studies of men and masculinities that these texts, authored by women for women, so often conform to the definitions of masculinity that are so often critically analysed and critiqued by those in the field? As scholars of men and masculinity continually point out the failures of hegemonic and ideal masculinities, how do we then respond to their reification in these novels? These are all big questions, which Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance sets out to think about, and hopefully answer. (32)

My impression, having finished the book, is that Allan is very good at asking questions but I'm not at all sure he provides detailed answers to all the questions. He seems to be more likely to suggest possible avenues for future research which might confirm his theories/initial findings (e.g. in the final quote in this section, see below).

Allan adds that

I do think we need to recognise that inherent to any commitment to the kinds of masculinity we are seeing in the popular romance is also a kind of institutional homophobia that lurks in the background of the romance novel and is written on the hero's body. In many ways, I agree with [Jayashree] Kamblé's contention [in Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction] that 'during the most visible moments in the history of the gay rights movement [...] the romance strand alters its hero to evince features of the Heterosexual Alphaman'. [...] What I am arguing, thus, is that the romance novel contains an internalised homophobia - as a genre - in which the male body must be constructed by what it is not: feminine, queer, homosexual. (36)

He concludes that

Hegemonic and ideal forms of masculinity are nearly a rule in the popular romance novel of the eighties and early nineties. A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole [...] I would caution that a larger study is required to sustain many of these suppositions (the male-male romance novel, for instance, may well become a site in which masculinity is explored in innovative and diverse ways). These masculinities are part of and contribute to heteropatriarchal capitalism. [...] To critique the romance novel for its commitment to hegemonic and ideal masculinity qua white, capitalist, bourgeois, heterosexual, and so on is not to reject the genre, but rather to ask new and important questions about its continuing success. [...] It is hoped that this study will encourage other scholars to develop an interest in popular romance novels and moreover that scholars of popular romance studies will begin to take into consideration the valuable lessons found throughout critical studies of men and masculinities. (39)

Chapter 3 - Reconsidering the Money Shot: Orgasm and Masculinity

Allan opens with a quote from a sex scene and then states that

The orgasm is essential to the popular romance novel, much in the same way that the money shot is seemingly essential to the pornographic text. [...] The money shot, like the orgasm in romance, has a long and storied history, and it has subsequently become a hotly debated aspect within the critical response to pornography. Surprisingly, romance scholars have not spilt nearly as much ink on the orgasm as porn scholars have on the money shot. As such, this chapter works to show how the orgasm is essential to romance and moreover that it functions like the money shot in pornography. (40)

I'm not sure why he's surprised. Explicit sex scenes only became common in romance in the later part of the twentieth century and romance novels existed long before then. Maybe it has to do with the fact that this book is focused on post-1970s romance, and there's reference to a similar time-period with respect to pornography: "For over forty years [...] the money shot has been essential to the structure and content of pornography, at least of the heterosexual mainstream varieties" (41). However, romances with no explicit sex scenes, or no sex scenes at all, continue to be published. As an Executive Editor at Harlequin wrote in July this year

Sex doesn’t matter. There, I said it.

I better clarify something before we move forward. Ok, ok, sex matters. But if you are thinking of writing for one of Harlequin’s series lines, sex shouldn’t be the first thing on your mind. (I assume some of you just stopped reading. Bye!) The first thing on your mind should be your story. What kind of a story is it? [...] We have a big range of hot to wholesome in our series and there is truly something for everybody, whether you like graphic sex or want to shut the door on sex, or whether you do not want to address a sexual relationship at all.

Allan is obviously aware of romances without explicit sex, since he continues by clarifying that "What is essential, at least within those novels that contain scenes of sexuality, is that the hero plays a central role in the orgasmic potential of the heroine" (43, emphasis added) because "women's orgasms are not autonomous to women in the sexual scene but rather are something for which men are responsible" (44). With regards to masculinity, "In the romance novel, sexual prowess and mastery depend upon being able to give a woman an orgasm" (44). As far as defining the romance genre goes, Allan states that

In many ways, then, the orgasm is as essential as the 'I love you' that closes the novel, and, perhaps, we might even argue that when the orgasm happens before the declaration of love, it is because of the orgasm that love can be achieved and declared. Each and every orgasm, then, in the popular romance novel is important as a structural and formal element of the novel because it speaks to the erotic and sexual success of the couple, in addition to their romantic success. (48)

Chapter 4 - Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Fiction

This chapter is based on "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" and a forthcoming essay "'And He Absolutely Fascinated Me": Masculinity and Virginity in Sherilee Gray's Breaking Him'. Since they're both in/going to be in the open-access online Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I won't say much about this chapter. Here's a quote that's in both "Theorising" and this chapter and which might feed back in to what Allen speculating about earlier, in Chapter 2, re masculinities scholars' reluctance to analyse romance:

The  male  reader  may thus confront an analytical, even diagnostic representation of masculinity at its patriarchal worst, or he may encounter an idealised representation of some “alternative masculinity” at its post‐ or anti‐ or reformed patriarchal best—or even, most unsettling of all, he may face a male figure who somehow combines or moves between these extremes. (56)

Chapter 5 - Slashing and Queering Popular Romance Fiction

One of the most fascinating developments in the genre of popular romance is the rise of male/male romance novels, which tell the story of two men falling in love. These novels are written, like most romances, 'for women, by women'. (69)

My argument for the male/male romance novel [...] is that we find examples of hybrid masculinities which are nonetheless informed by hegemonic masculinities. We need to remember that hegemonic masculinities are always in flux and that these hybrid forms are, of course, in tune with and responding to the currently accepted definition of hegemonic masculinity. (73)

The chapter has sections on slash fiction and on a film, Y tu mamá también. Allan observes that

The popular romance novel between men extends and expands upon the limited nature of the bromance, which is a quasi-erotic but never quite enacted upon relationship. Unlike slash, wherein the fantasy is for seemingly straight men to become a romantic unit, and unlike the bromance, which cannot include sexuality, the popular romance introduces us to characters who are by and large gay and who are seeking the stability of a monogamous relationship. The popular romance novel, as a form, for the most part, will present a conservative vision of romance for these gay men. (83)

That's "conservative" because

what is central to romance are profoundly bourgeois values that speak to love, marriage, monogamy, and family. In what follows, I work to provide a close reading of Marie Sexton's Never a Hero, which is something of a controversial novel because it challenges the limits of the genre while also actively thinking about masculinity and sexuality. [...] In Never a Hero, the author openly and explicitly engages with the question and matter of HIV/AIDS, a topic which has remained taboo in many popular romance novels. [...] I argue here that what most upsets readers about Never a Hero is that it dared to engage with a question that few wanted to read about. (84)

One thing I found confusing is Allan's brief comment on Sunita's review of the novel (which can be found here). He writes that

In one review of the novel, the reviewer, Sunita, writes: 'Nick is HIV-positive and has been for five years. It's the result of a week-long encounter during a Cancun vacation where the condoms ran out and he and his partner barebacked (apparently Cancun had a condom shortage at that time)' (2013). [...] In this review, readers find an underlying HIV phobia. One imagines, of course, that this perspective is not unique to this review. The parenthetical remark that closes the sentence acts as a kind of 'victim-blaming,' I would argue, wherein a moral judgement is cast upon the characters. This judgement is a kind of 'I told you so' narrative, akin to 'she was asking for it' or 'she should have known better.' (84-85)

Since I recognised the name of the reviewer, I went off to look at the review. Here's the paragraph immediately after the one from which Allan quotes, and it quite explicitly condemns victim-blaming:

I found it somewhat problematic that Nick was so obsessed with his own guilt. Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, but we all take risks that don’t pay off; it doesn’t mean we deserve it if something bad happens to us. Nick beating himself up for contracting HIV is like a woman who gets raped blaming herself for walking down the “wrong” street. Everyone makes mistakes. Saying all the consequences of those mistakes are deserved is blaming the victim and sends a terrible message, in my opinion.

Sunita isn't blaming Nick for contracting HIV: quite the opposite, in fact. However, she does go on to write that

Nick gives Owen a blow job before he tells him about his HIV status. This is absolutely a No Go. The fact that he knows his viral load is low and that the risk of transmission is low is beside the point. It’s Owen’s risk to assess, not Nick’s.

So maybe that explains why Allan writes that

the reviewers and commenters are taking on the diagnostic role of pathologising the barebacker while also policing his behaviour and indeed framing it in almost criminal terms because he failed to disclose the status. On the one hand, all of this is reasonable enough; after all, barebacking continues to be framed as a risky sexual practice. And it certainly may well be a risky sexual practice in terms of health, but so too are many things and yet we do not pathologise and condemn them in the same ways. After all, romance novels have celebrated the 'surprise pregnancy' narrative, which is also the result, often enough, of condomless sex. (85)

I'm still having a problem understanding Allan's critique though, because it wasn't Nick's barebacking in Cancun that was deemed a "No Go": it was his failure to "disclose the status" before having oral sex with Owen. So this seems to be more about (a lack of) informed consent than about specific sexual activities. Allan in fact goes on to say of the scene in which Nick reveals his HIV status that "The most common reading [...] of this scene is that Nick violated Owen's trust - which he did - by not disclosing his HIV status" (88).

All of this rather distracted me from Allan's suggestion that the scene in which Nick starts out by saying he's got AIDS and then corrects himself and says it's HIV could be read as

a 'teachable' moment within the novel, especially for a reader for whom HIV/AIDS may be something of an unknown? We have become less and less anxious about HIV with the rise of PrEP, for instance. What if Sexton was using the characters to educate her readers about HIV/AIDS? In this reading, then, the conflation of HIV with AIDS is necessary so as to explain that they are not the same. (88)

It's an interesting reading of the novel and, as Allan says, one "with a bit of generosity" (89); that last comment makes me wonder if Allan was more generous to the romance author than to the romance reviewer.

Chapter 6 - Towards an Anatomy of Male/Male Popular Romance Novel (sic)

In this chapter Allan focuses "on the anatomy of men's bodies in male/male popular romance novels. Simply put, there are more of them [than] in the average novel, so how does that affect and change the way bodies are described and imagined?" (91). He argues that

the performances may appear 'inclusive' or 'sensitive' but there is an underlying commitment to and belief in hegemonic masculinity that does not disappear once the clothing is removed. In these novels, the sex scenes become sites of hegemonic masculinity. When we look at the bodies in these novels, for instance, the hegemonic reveals itself quite clearly, for in the popular romance novel, readers rarely encounter a small penis. (93)

He gives as an example a quotation from Marie Sexton's Strawberries for Desert in which a thin hero is described, who is soft in places:

This scene provides much to think about with regards to the body. While the hero is generally attracted to 'more masculine men,' this body is 'absolutely perfect.' His body meets an ideal form, and yet there are allusions to seemingly feminine aspects of his body; for instance, the descriptions of both the thinness and the softness. All of this leads towards a conclusion within the paragraph that focuses attention on the penis, which 'was beautiful [and] hard.' [...] If the body could be 'more masculine,' the penis does the necessary work of reclaiming masculinity. (93)

However, "The male/male popular romance works to endow the anus with as much meaning as the phallus" (96) and "Rewriting anal sex as a proof of masculinity does important work with regards to femininity; that is, it works to undercut the possibility of femininity and in doing so perhaps becomes a latent misogyny" (97).

Allan ends with more questions:

What would the romance novel look like without 'spectacular masculinity'? It is almost impossible to conceive of the romance novel without spectacular masculinity. Presumably, we might find this in novels that do not include men, such as the lesbian romance novel, but I would suspect that gender still plays a role in those, too. Does the romance novel depend upon masculinity? These are, I admit, questions that remain unanswered. (98)

Chapter 7 - Vanilla Sex, or Reading Pornography Romantically

This chapter isn't about romance novels because "As I work towards a conclusion, I ask: Could pornography be read as a romance?" (99). Allan asks the question because he wishes "critical studies of men and masculinities [to] reconsider its engagement with pornography, which has to date largely been negative in nature" (99). He engages with a work of pornography which is set in a home, and in which an attractive couple have "vanilla" sex with each other in their bedroom, after flirting in the kitchen.

Epilogue: Are Billionaires Still Sexy?

Allan ponders the impact of Donald Trump becoming president of the US because "In many ways, Donald Trump, or 'The Donald,' is the archetypal hero of the popular romance novel, and one can think here, for instance, of the eroticisation of Trump during the eighties and nineties, and even into the new millennium" (117). [Typing that out made me feel a bit nauseous.] Allan turns to an article by evolutionary psychologists Cox and Fisher (it's available free online here): "In essence [...] Cox and Fisher are arguing that the [...] desire for the CEO is about accruing resources or finding a mate who has accrued enough resources to provide for a future" (118). [I feel I ought to point out here that evolutionary psychology is a lot more controversial than many other fields.] Allan notes that billionaires are a lot more wealthy than other types of wealthy hero so "These billionaires are excessive heroes" (118): "we find excesses of wealth, sex, and greed in the figure of the billionaire hero. He is often not necessarily a violent figure but initially a less than sympathetic figure, who, over the course of the novel, will be redeemed" (119).

Allan observes that

After the election of President Donald J. Trump, billionaire heroes did not and have not disappeared [...]. However, the election of President Trump did cause at least one romance novelist to pause and reflect not only on the wealth of their heroes but also their masculinities - recalling that often these go hand in hand. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Sarah MacLean explained that she rewrote an entire manuscript after the election of Donald Trump. The hero of her novel 'was toxic. Indeed, I suspected he would have voted for Donald Trump. And I wanted nothing to do with him' (2017).

Since billionaire heroes continue to be written, he speculates that they are

an attempt to make sense of the life of the billionaire and to imagine that behind the money is a caring and sympathetic man. [...] the novel works to humanise the extraordinarily wealthy heroes who populate the world of romance while also limiting the value of those billions over the course of the novel - as if the novel declares that love can and will conquer all. [...] the novel, as a form, also imagines that there is something redeemable in seemingly irredeemable characters [...]. Perhaps, then, this novelistic strategy has taken on new meaning in the age of the uber-wealthy, who are no longer found on tropical islands and boardrooms but also in the Oval Office. (123)


Since Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance is "asking that scholars of masculinity think seriously and critically about popular romance novels and especially the construction and representation of maleness, masculinity and male bodies within them" (10) it presumably focuses on aspects of romance which will be of particular interest to these scholars. This perhaps explains why Allan, who states that romance is "a genre largely written by women for women" (9), does not discuss lesbian romances. It would also seem to explain a focus on a particular kind of masculinity within the genre:

For Radway, and certainly other critics, masculinity is in many ways central to the romance novel, and its representation is, simply put, 'spectacular.' Even beyond his body, the hero is not, in the words of romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz, 'a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking, "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend,' because, as Krentz suggests, 'you don't get much of a challenge for [the heroine] from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel' (1992: p. 109). The hero is a representation of what Raewyn Connell has called hegemonic masculinity, the kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying. Radway and Krentz are not alone. For Tania Modleski the hero is 'a handsome, strong, experienced, wealthy man' (2008: p. 28). What is certain, then, is that the hero of popular romance is, at bottom, a spectacular representation of masculinity. (9)

In the context of Allan's aim of encouraging scholars of masculinity to examine romance, a focus on the "kind of masculinity that critical studies of men and masculinity have spent decades studying" makes sense. However, Allan's methodology does appear to invite confirmation bias since

In my textual analyses of popular romance novels, I am not making arguments about complete novels but rather about scenes in these novels. In each of the scenes, we find a description of the male body that conforms to the idealistic treatment of maleness and masculinity that Radway and others have noted in their studies of popular romance. Admittedly, this methodology [...] is open to critique from a variety of perspectives, many of which I might agree with. (15)

I would have appreciated discussion of the "beta" hero because Krentz's statement is quite clearly a response to him. The so-called "beta" hero continued to exist despite her complaints about the lack of challenge he provided, and the recent creation of the label of "cinnamon roll" for heroes who are "supportive, kind & oh-so-sweet" (Olivia Dade) is evidence that "alpha" masculinity is not the sole type of masculinity in romance. Since they're not mentioned in the book, I don't know if Allan would consider these, too, to be archetypes, or just variations on the archetype he's describing. After all, "beta" heroes' personalities may differ from those of "alphas" but to what extent do their bodies differ?

Allan quotes Erving Goffman:

Goffman's American male is 'young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports' [...]. This definition would need to be modified slightly to fit the requirements of the romance novel; for example, the hero of romance is not generally married (though he may be a widower); however, the bulk of this definition is illustrative of the archetypal romance hero. (12)

There is only passing reference made here to race, ethnicity and nationality, and this is also the case when Allan quotes Judith Lorber's summation of "hegemonic masculinity as being about 'men who are economically successful, racially superior, and visibly heterosexual'" (28) and mentions "intersectional identities, critical race theory" (72). The book contains no discussion of masculinity in, for example, African-American romance novels, the implications of the popularity of sheikh romances and Mediterranean/Latin heroes, or potential national differences (e.g. as discussed with reference to Australia by Juliet Flesch). One omission which is deliberate and explained by Allan is a choice to

limit my analysis to romance novels that are 'contemporary' in nature - which means they are largely written about and take place in the present [...] and secondly, those that have been published since the rise of the 'blockbuster' romance, which begins in the early 1970s. While much can be said about a variety of subgenres, ranging from the historical through to the paranormal, there are, of course, limits to analysis and this is where I am choosing to draw a line in the sand. I am not excluding these novels from analysis because they are 'bad' or 'unworthy' of analysis but because I wish to focus on novels that are explicitly engaging in reflecting and thinking through the present. (14)

Another omission which is mentioned is that of "trans* romances for the simple reason that I do not know enough about these texts" (23) and in the conclusion he writes that "I did not [...] take an approach that drew upon or borrowed from critical disability studies [...] The field of popular romance studies, as it grows, will want to account for how disability functions and is represented in the genre, and how masculinity affects and informs such representations of disability" (114). How, too "might scholars think about age and aging in the popular romance novel?" (115)

Allan says that "A larger study is required to make generalisations about the genre as a whole" (39) and I hope I'm not taking that statement too far out of context when I agree that I'd like to see more studies of romance which explore different types of masculinity in (a wider variety of subgenres of) romance, as well as nuances in the presentation of it, which Allan has not had the space to consider. Allan's relatively short book will, I hope, encourage more scholars to study popular romance novels in all their variety.


Allan, Jonathan A. Men, Masculinities, and Popular Romance. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

laura Thursday, 28 November, 2019

Why Popular Romance is Un-American (Allegedly)

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 1 June, 2019

In 1983, writing about the "drug store novel" (what we'd now think of as modern gothic romances), Beth Timson concluded that:

while they are written and sold largely in America (though not entirely, of course), their roots are firmly in the traditional British novel; they do not have the characteristics that critics like Marius Bewley in The Eccentric Design or Richard Chase in The American Novel and Its Traditions or Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel have so carefully pinned down as "American." (89)

This is because

The heroine [...] does not create a new world of her own building but sets out to rediscover her past. During the period in which she lives at the ancestral mansion, she looks over the possibilities of action and finds that she must make a choice between the appearance of goodness in the attractive potential usurper of the estate and the reality of goodness in the outwardly surly heir. Sometimes there is an initial wavering, because she thinks that she distrusts inherited wealth and position. In the end, however, she becomes one of the preservers of the estate - rejecting the usurper and the other young woman who is her psychological alter ego, clearing up family mysteries, and marrying the heir. To find a mainstream novel with this structure of reconciliation, we must look away from American fiction to the British novel, since the pattern of inheriting a house rather than building it is obviously more dominant there. And indeed, a close resemblance is very easy to find. Jane Austen's splendid Mansfield Park has a structure practically identical to that I have outlined for the drug store novel. (91)

In fact,

one can say that what [Austen] does and what the drug store novel is doing are the same thing: showing a pattern of the former outcast integrated into a restabilized family structure. No significant American novel that I can think of does that; no significant British novel that I can think of does not do it. To express the idea in the terms of critic Richard Chase, the classic American novel concerns itself with the Fall of man and his expulsion from Eden, while the British novel writes of man's redemption. Presumably the romance novelists have sensed this deep distinction, because they choose to set most of their novels in England. (92)

To conclude:

ultimately all the data would lead to several conclusions about the drug store novel and mainstream fiction. First, in the British novel the structure of reconciliation has been a dominant one and one used successfully by both significant male and female authors, while in the American novel the structure of reconciliation has been perverted and forced underground. Reconciliation with the stable past and the family has been turned into a vaguely erotic union with the father or his representative. The classic American novel is male-dominated and concerns rejection, independence, and isolation; while the popular romance is female-dominated and concerns re-integration of past and present. [...] the Feminine, in its deepest mythic sense of union and community, has found its voice in American fiction only outside the mainstream. (94-95)

It's interesting to see here how particular assumptions and ways of interpreting "all the data" are shaping outcomes. Certainly if you only choose particular novels (by men) as the basis for determining what constitutes "the American novel" it's not surprising that you can end up concluding that "the American novel" is "male-dominated". It's worth noting that "significant" would appear to exclude popular fiction. So, by definition, romance novels written by US women are both un-American and insignificant perversions of a foreign tradition. Hmm. Well, it's another way of discrediting women's writing, I suppose, particularly where it intersects with popular culture.


Timson, Beth S., 1983. ‘The Drug Store Novel: Popular Romantic Fiction and the Mainstream Tradition’, Studies in Popular Culture, 6: 88-96.

Censorship of Popular Romance in Nigeria

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 4 December, 2018

Emmanuel Ifeduba's "Book Censorship in Nigeria: A study of Origin, Methods and Motivations, 1805-2018" (Library Philosophy and Practice, 2018) lists the:

Kano Book Burning (2007): In May 2007, A Daidaita Sahu, the Kano State agency for the reorientation, organized a book and film burning at a local girl’s school as a prelude to a proposed anti-publication law against over 300 young writers whose incursion into romance and western-style literature, known as Littattafan soyayya, threatened the conservative male-chauvinistic system operating in the state. Ibrahim Shekarau, Governor of Kano State at the time, publicly burned thousands of copies of Hausa romance novels describing them as pornographic and immoral to the customs and traditions of Northern Nigeria. Consequently, writers in the state sued him and he was forced to settle out of court and to slow down on his censorship. In February, 2016, government officials stopped a popular radio narrator of the novels, Isa Ahmed Koko, from visiting Kano to meet his fans.

Don't Worry About Women who Read Fifty Shades

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 2 December, 2017

Earlier research on Fifty Shades of Grey had

coded the behaviors in the book according to the CDC’s guidelines for interpersonal violence (IPV). They found pervasive patterns of violence and abuse within the work. This included ‘‘intimidation, stalking, humiliation, forced sex, use of alcohol to lower resistance and isolation’’.

The presence of these behaviours, combined with the massive popularity of the series,

created both confusion and worry in a generation of feminist scholars. We have asked ourselves why this book has succeeded. Is this really what women want? (van Reenen 2014 ) We have worried that the popularity of this story is evidence that the older generation of feminists has failed to inspire feminist attitudes in our daughters, younger sisters and perhaps within ourselves. [...] We have worried whether the characterization in the books reinforces heteronormative patterns of sexuality that may create harm for young readers.

However, as Case and Coventry observe in their recently published paper,

What we have not accomplished to date is to ask men and women what they think about the behaviors of the characters in the book. We make the argument that this series romanticizes abuse and that it should be investigated from this perspective. However, does this necessarily mean that American men and women, especially those that identify as feminists, are longing to engage in abusive behaviors as either the abused or the abusive.

They therefore set out to discover whether Fifty Shades describes behaviours women want in their own relationships and

the answer is ‘No and neither do men’. While the behaviors associated with Christian Grey may have been popular reading for women in the US, this fiction does not translate into acceptability of these behaviors in their real life. These behaviors are also not supported by men.

Furthermore, "both men and women appear to expect to give up relatively equal levels of control to the control that they exert."

One caveat I thought I'd better add is that the people involved in the research were not asked about whether or not they'd read Fifty Shades. However, the popularity of the series and its notoriety were such that I think (a) it might be possible to assume some of the people surveyed had read/heard about the series and (b) nonetheless this research suggests that "the behaviors associated with Christian Grey" have not become widely acceptable in real life.


Case, Patricia and Barbara Thomas Coventry. "Fifty Shades of Feminism: An Analysis of Feminist Attitudes and 'Grey Behaviors'." Sexuality & Culture, 2017.  [Abstract here.]

Pillaging the Past for Contemporary Enjoyment

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 22 October, 2017

In Alex Beecroft's Blue Eyed Stranger (2015) one of the heroes, Martin, is a history teacher and historical reenactor whose "mother’s a Yorkshirewoman, my father’s from the Sudan" (61). Historical accuracy matters to him and so he has thought out a matching back-story for the character he enacts: "my character is from the kingdom of Meroe in Nubia, one of whose principle [sic] exports was carnelian" (32);

A fair amount of both Saxons and Vikings travelled to Rome on pilgrimage even in the time we’re reenacting, and a fair amount of Nubians travelled from the Sudan to Rome to trade in gold, ivory, and gems. No reason why a Viking couldn’t have married a merchant’s daughter while he was out there and brought her home. (61)

Archaelogical evidence certainly suggests this is a possible scenario given that

at least some people from Africa or of African descent were living and dying in rural and urban communities in the British Isles during the 'Viking Age' (eighth to eleventh centuries). (Green)

All the same, Martin, knows "he wasn’t what the public wanted to see when they looked for Vikings" (34); in many ways, the public want what they imagine the Vikings to be rather than the more complex realities of which historians are aware.

According to María José Gómez Calderón,

In the last two decades there has been a significant increase of novels of the so-called «hot historical» variety focusing on the Viking as object of feminine erotic desire. The most famous authors of these new Viking narratives, Johanna Lindsey, Catherine Coulter, and Sandra Hill have even become «New York Times Best-Sellers.» (292)

and their outlines are well-known enough to be parodied:

In Jackie Rose’s I’m a Viking and I Protest (2004), a contemporary American man of Norse origin, Karl Gustavsen, founds an antidefamation league and sues romance writer Rose Jacobson for presenting Vikings as sexy rapists in her works [...]. To begin with, Karl denounces Rose’s unfair presentation of the Viking in her best-seller Ravished by Ragnar (significantly published by Orgazm Books). (Gómez Calderón 296)

He does have a valid point when protesting against the depiction of Vikings as "sexy rapists" because, as Erika Ruth Sigurdson points out,

While eighth-century writers were quick to denounce the various crimes of Viking invaders, very few of those largely monastic writers commented on rape in the invasions—to the point that even modern scholarship has considered it possible that rape was simply not a part of Viking invasions. (253)

Despite this, the

theme of Viking rape—[which treats] rape as historicizing detail and rape as evidence of Viking masculinity-—appear[s] from the earliest incarnations of romanticized Viking narratives in the early nineteenth century and onward. (Sigurdson 252-3)

In other words, rape appears as a "historicizing detail" in "nineteenth-century Viking stories" because it "formed an integral part of scene setting and the creation of historical authenticity, of creating a world that felt authentically Viking-Age" (261).  Similarly, in a collection of twelve Harlequin Mills & Boon romances reprinted in 2007 and set later in the Middle Ages,

The invented space of the Medieval Collection is one of acute sexual danger for women. [...] The threat of rape or sexual assault is an ever-present fear for medieval heroines [...]. Much of the sexual harassment in these novels originates from the hero, and although some are more explicit, most first sexual encounters are characterized by violence and male dominance. (Burge 104)

Rape in fictions set in the Middle Ages presumably felt and continues to feel authentic, even if it wasn't, because,

As Kathryn Gravdal, a leader in the field of medieval rape, explains, modern culture has developed powerful myths on the subject of rape and sexuality in the Middle Ages:

The first is the notion that women enjoyed unparalleled sexual power and freedom in the days of courtly love. The second is the converse belief that rape was commonplace in the Middle Ages because society was so barbaric that men “did not know any better.” (Gravdal 1991,152)

It is this second myth, the notion of barbaric men and rape as a commonplace[,] that is particularly prevalent in popular depictions of the Vikings. (Sigurdson 254)

Nonetheless, a propensity to rape women was presumably not considered an intrinsic, or at least a desirable, aspect of masculinity in the nineteenth century, because in most of the Viking texts produced in this period

the hero’s masculinity was defined [...] by his sexual restraint, and his ability to love a worthy woman and look for her love in return. At the same time, we have also seen a few places where violent sexuality plays a role in Viking masculine identity, particularly in the case of minor characters, or in the blurring of lines between abduction and voluntary marriage. But there are a few examples from this early period where Viking rape is treated as an unambiguously integral part of Viking masculinity. (Sigurdson 262)

As ideas about masculinity changed, however, so did the sexuality of Viking heroes and in recent decades

Vikings, with their giant battle-axes and muscular good looks, perfectly symbolize “the aggressive-passive, dominant-submissive, me-Tarzan-you-Jane nature of the relationship between the sexes in our [rape] culture” (Herman 1994, 45). With its close correlation to the broader “sex and violence,” the phrase “rape and pillage” has come to encapsulate this paradox and perfectly describe a violent, dominant form of male sexuality. (Sigurdson 250)

What I think all this demonstrates is, firstly, that historical fiction can be shaped by inaccurate ideas about the past and, secondly, that it will also tend to be shaped by contemporary ideas about gender roles and sexuality.

This pillaging of the past often enhances the enjoyment of modern readers. For example:

sexuality in the Medieval Collection is drawn from modern anxieties concerning sexual violence, but this violence is safely confined to the Middle Ages, obscuring the extent to which submission and dominance can be rooted in modernity. Furthermore, defining the medieval as a period characterized by sexual violence works oppositionally to suggest that modern sexuality is not violent. (Burge 109)

If imagined differences between past and present can bring pleasure, so too can imagined similarities. Eloisa James, for example, has argued that

we historical authors need to think more deeply about what men were like back in the era we’re writing about—and if you ask me, likely not much has changed. They were scratching themselves and boasting and carrying on generally 200 years ago.

Those might not seem at first glance like traits which would give readers enjoyment but, on reflection, I think perhaps they do for some readers because they allow the heroines (and through them some modern female readers) to feel a smug sense of superiority. To quote a secondary character in a non-Viking romance:

"Women get off on that, you know."
"Men making jerks out of themselves, [...] I think it reinforces their sense of superiority. I mean, deep down they're ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent positive we're idiots. Still, they like to have it confirmed every once in a while." (Buck 34)

Or, to put it yet another way, there is an appeal

to what in the novels is presented as the eternal feminine that joins both females [i.e. the heroine and the female reader], [...] by assuming that women of all ages have to face the same kind of problems with men, that is, the eternal masculine. (Gómez Calderón 294)

Inaccurate depictions of the past may be enjoyable (although presumably not to those, like Martin, who crave accuracy) but they may, cumulatively, have serious consequences. For example, if one can create the impression of an "eternal feminine" one can ignore the ways in which gender roles have changed and are, therefore, socially constructed. Perhaps even more seriously,

Racist and white supremacist ideas about the past have lingered in our culture. They are not limited to dyed-in-the-wool racists or card-carrying members of the Klan. They can seem natural and normal. That makes them a fundamental part of institutionalized racism as it exists today, since the past forms and informs the foundations of the present. [...] We see the past the way it has been presented to us in school, in history books, and in popular culture. (Sturtevant)

As Martin says, being immersed in accurate history can feel

Funny and bizarre, unsettling and uncomfortable, sometimes even repellent. But you always returned from it with a refreshed perspective, so that just for a little while, before habit kicked back in, you could see your own world with a stranger’s eyes, and all the things that were normally invisible showed up like cancer cells tagged with radiant dye. (121)

It's not everyone's idea of enjoyment, and so perhaps not easy to incorporate into a mass-market genre. In addition, in popular romance fiction the readers do need to feel an emotional connection to the protagonists; that could be inhibited if readers feel too unsettled or repelled by the characters' beliefs and attitudes (though less so if those emotions are elicited by the characters' context). So there are certainly challenges involved in writing historically-accurate historical romance but there also romance authors who are willing to accept those challenges and make their depictions of history that bit more challenging to long-accepted norms.


Beecroft, Alex. Blue Eyed Stranger. Hillsborough, NJ: Riptide, 2015.

Buck, Carole. Knight and Day. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1992.

Burge, Amy. “Do Knights Still Rescue Damsels in Distress?: Reimagining the Medieval in Mills & Boon Historical Romance.” The Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction. Ed. Katherine Cooper and Emma Short. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 95-114.

Gómez Calderón, María José. “Romancing the Dark Ages: The Viking Hero in Sentimental Narrative.” Boletín Millares Carlo 26 (2007): 287-97. [Available in full, for free, online.]

Green, Caitlin. "A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain." 12 September 2015.

James, Eloisa. "Making Rakes from Real Men." The Popular Romance Project. 9 April 2013. [link to the Internet Archive]

Sigurdson, Erika Ruth. "Violence and Historical Authenticity: Rape (and Pillage) in Popular Viking Fiction." Scandinavian Studies 86.3 (2014): 249-67.

Sturtevant, Paul E. "Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Tearing Down the 'Whites Only' Medieval World." The Public Medievalist. 7 February 2017.

Fluid vs Furry Species

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 26 September, 2017


monsters and aliens offer important insight into how different animals become enlisted in the work of legitimizing particular human genders, sexualities, and races through animal imagination. In other words, monsters and aliens are imaginary beings, but their textual bodies are composed of specific animalsbears, lizards, birds, crabs, squid, etc.that are deployed for the purposes of different fantasies of gender, sexuality, race, and species. In particular, vertebrate- and especially mammal-based monsters make it easier to confirm heterosexual, racialized fantasies about bestial dominant masculinities and fragile white femininities, whereas invertebrate-based creatures open up a whole different realm of embodied animal relations, fantasies, and desires. (Van Engen)

The article from which this quote is taken is about erotica, but I think some of its insights could also be applied to some kinds of romance.


Dagmar Van Engen. "How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in EBook Erotica." Humanimalia 9.1 (2017).


The picture comes from the Illustrated Police News of 17 October 1896. It depicts the "alarming experience of fair bathers who are attacked by an octopus." I found it at Wikimedia Commons but more details can be found here.

Fantasies of Dangerous Masculinity

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 24 September, 2017

In Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women a number of romance authors attempted to explain the appeal of the popular romance novel. One of them, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, wrote that she "loved" the "historical romances [...] sometimes labeled 'bodice rippers,' not without a certain justification since many of them contained narrow-eyed heroes who [...] committed some rather violent sex acts on the heroines" (53) and, she added,

I can only shake my head in bewilderment when I hear the romance novel criticized for depicting women as being submissive to domineering men. Are the critics reading the same books I am? What is the ultimate fate of the most arrogant, domineering, ruthless macho hero any romance writer can create? He is tamed.

By the end of the book, the heroine has brought him under her control in a way women can seldom control men in the real world. [...] He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But, because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command. (57-58)

Phillips is quite explicit here in acknowledging that these relationships should not be models for relating to men "in the real world": "This fictional 'tough guy' hero is the sort of man I would never permit in my real life" (56). He is, then, a fantasy, and as Ashwin, the eponymous hero of Kit Rocha's Ashwin observes, "a fantasy was different than a plan. A fantasy meant disregarding inconvenient realities and embracing improbabilities."

AshwinAshwin himself is an updated, twenty-first-century version of the heroes who so thrilled Susan Elizabeth Phillips. He is a super-soldier, supposedly genetically engineered to be emotionless, but since popular romance has moved on from the days of the bodice-ripper he does not behave sexually like the heroes of those novels. However, he recalls that in a previous relationship the woman had wanted him to cater

to her fantasies. Sinking his hands into her hair to play the conquering beast had been a simple enough role, even for him. But he’d always puzzled over the apparent contradiction—why a woman with so little power would dream of having him take away even those scraps.

Now he understood. [...]  The fantasy was about this overwhelming madness inside him. About being desired by the monster so completely that you owned him. So he’d fight for you, kill for you. Protect you.

The novel, Ashwin, is also a fantasy, of a similar type: Ashwin's obsession with the heroine, Kora, does not lead him to abuse her sexually, but nonetheless, by the end of the novel, as in the explicitly sexual fantasy he described earlier, though this time only wrapped in one layer of fantasy (that of the novel) rather than being a (sexual) fantasy within a (novelistic) fantasy, "Ashwin would always be a bit of a monster. But he was her monster, utterly loyal, completely devoted."


Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. "The Romance and the Empowerment of Women." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 53-59.

Rocha, Kit. Ashwin. Self-published. 2017.

Aliens: Not Just Showing Earth Girls a Good Time

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 12 September, 2017

Someone mentioned an alien romance on Twitter, and I was curious. The title included a pun, the review mentioned a beta hero, and so I decided that this sounded like a fun book to try. Several hours later, having read both The E.T. Guy and its sequel, The New Guy, it was obvious that they're not just about how clueless scaly guys from outer space, with alien mating practices and sexual organs, adapt to human culture while working in IT and the Enquiries department of a branch of government.  As is so often the case with popular culture, the escapism is inextricably linked to the political, and the author, V.C. Lancaster, has written a post which saved me the trouble of speculating about whether or not this was intentional:

The E.T. Guy was semi-politically motivated given the situation in Syria when I wrote it. Since then, Trump has been elected, and he actually did try to effectively close America’s borders, and the situation in Syria and around the world has not particularly gotten better. In Syria, it’s hard to quantify ‘bad’ and ‘worse’, so I won’t say it’s got worse. I can’t pretend that I am anything but pro-immigration, nor do I want to, but I hope that I would write these books anyway because I like the story.

I had a moment a few months ago when I thought “How can I continue? How can I write about refugees when the real world is like this?” and my answer was, go bigger. Say it. Say what you see. Make it political. Try to do good. Try to change minds, convince hearts. I know it’s just a mid-range Kindle romance about aliens, selling for a few quid, but if I can make just a couple of people more compassionate, then it’s worth it. And will I mind if Trump’s army boycott the book? Not really. I’ll miss the money, but I’m not going to collaborate with them. Good riddance.

But at its heart, [the second book, The New Guy] it’s still the same story I thought of last year, before any of this happened. It’s still going to be about Ro and Maggie. This book is going to be full of stuff I would consider a hard sell for a Kindle romance about aliens anyway. The only thing I don’t mind revealing now is that I want to give Ro hot pink highlights on his scales and eyes. He’s not going to be much of a rough-tough alpha, though he is going to have his moments. This book is going to touch on issues of masculinity as well as politics. Maybe I’m overreaching, but it’s my book and I’m going to write it the way I want, so there.

I don't usually mind including spoilers in my posts, since I write analysis rather than reviews, but in this case, since the book was published so recently, I don't want to say anything about how the second book "touch[es] on issues of masculinity." Also, this is an ongoing series, so I'm not sure how the issues around immigration will play out. One anti-immigrant-alien politician has already made an appearance.

I don't think elaan, a commenter at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, is alone in "wondering how recent politics wld/if show up in subsequent romance novels": if you're interested in how contemporary politics are influencing the romances authors create, this series joins the Rogue Desire anthology in answering that question. Anyone come across any other romances which are clearly exploring the issues raised by contemporary politics?

Women's Work: Gender, Respect and Cultural Capital

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 7 September, 2017

Analysis of reviews of books by women confirms that women authors, and genres associated with women, continue to receive less prestigious coverage in the media. Lori St-Martin

analyzed the book/arts sections of six newspapers of record in three languages and five countries: Le monde des livres (Paris, France), The New York Times Book Review (New York, USA), Le Devoir (Montréal, Canada), The Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), Babelia, in El País (Madrid, Spain, and Ñ, in Clarín (Buenos Aires, Argentina). The data covers a 12-week period, from the week of August 20, 2015 to the week of November 8, 2015. (35)

Some of these publications came close to giving equal coverage to women authors:

The English-language papers were the closest to parity, with 41.2% of books by women for The New York Times and 43% for The Globe & Mail. The Spanish-language papers had by far the lowest figures: 21% for Clarín and 24% for El País, with Le Monde (28.6%) and Le Devoir (34%) falling in between. (36)

However, the picture worsens when one considers the nature of these reviews:

Every newspaper has its own way of granting cultural prestige. Certain writers are marked as more important, usually by giving them prime space or extra space [...] perhaps the most important measure of all is the length of articles; giving an author a long article or more than one article sends a powerful message about his importance. I use the word "his" advisedly, since 9 out of 10 authors featured in this way (87.5%) were men. (38)

The language used to describe books is also very significant in terms of granting or withholding prestige. For example, St-Martin

looked at all the brief headers that introduced the in-depth articles in [French literary magazine] Lire. [...] The only positive words used to describe women's books in headers in the entire issue were the following: "fast-paced", "enjoyable", "whimsically multiplies characters and situations". Books by men, however, were deemed "masterly", "magnificent", "fascinating" [...], "powerful", "superb", "brilliant", and even "necessary, indispensable, revolutionary". This is a partial list. Just by leafing through this magazine, one gets the message, subliminally, that books by women do not deserve high praise, that books that are epic in scope ("an American odyssey", "a masterly ode to life") and touched by greatness are invariably by men. There is no need to proclaim that women's books are none of these things; the entire magazine screams it. It is no coincidence that these attributes - power, mastery, greatness, size and scope - are stereotypically considered to be male, and even phallic. (40)

The unstated criteria by which brilliance, significance and value are assessed all favour particular kinds of authors and works:

what is neglected? Books by or about women and "minorities", including sexual and gender minorities; feminist, lesbian or "radical" books of any kind; "commercial fiction" defined in such a way as to exclude certain categories identified with women (romance novels) while including others deemed more "universal" (crime fiction, thrillers). The big, the major, the important, are concepts still associated with males. (42)

This is, in other words, the literary equivalent of what we see elsewhere in the labour market: even if women are present in larger numbers, the types of work associated with women continue to be considered (often literally) worth less, while types of work linked to traits associated with masculinity are given higher value. The Fawcett Society recently reported that

80% of those working in the low paid care and leisure sector are women, while only 10% of those in the better paid skilled trades are women. [...] Men make up the majority of those in the highest paid and most senior roles – for example, there are just seven female Chief Executives in the FTSE 100.


sociologists such as Judy Wajcman (1998) have highlighted [...] the increased entry of women into the labour market has not been associated with feminising or 'softening' the workings of capitalism, even when women workers make it to high-level management positions. For Stephen Whitehead (2002), even though women have been moving more into paid work, the capitalist system retains values that are associated with dominant discourses of masculinity. Masculine values still pervade organisational cultures, locating femininity - and those who are feminine - as 'other' and marginal to much paid work. (Strangleman and Warren 137)


Fawcett Society. "Close the Gender Pay Gap." Accessed on 7 September 2017. <>.

Saint-Martin, Lori. "Counting Women to Make Women Count: From Manspreading to Cultural Parity." Du genre dans la critique d'art/Gender in art criticism. Ed. Marie Buscatto, Mary Leontsini & Delphine Naudier. Paris: E'ditions des archives contemporaines, 2017: 33-46.

Strangleman, Tim and Tracey Warren. Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008.